Young Scientist winner Ciara Judge is a powerhouse of good ideas

8 Jan 2016

Ciara Judge, co-founder of Project Zilkr, at the 2016 BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition. Photo by Luke Maxwell

Super-teen Ciara Judge is leading three start-ups, furthering her award-winning research and preparing to speak at TEDxTeen in London – all while studying for her Leaving Cert.

Ciara Judge has already built up an impressive resumé as co-founder of three start-ups, and she hasn’t even sat her final school exams.

Though her interest in science stems from a very early age, it was victory at the 2013 BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE), along with her teammates Émer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow, that set Judge on this accelerated career path.

“The Young Scientist kind of changed my life,” she said, speaking to me from this year’s event. “We got exposed to so many opportunities that we never would have gotten if it hadn’t been for the Young Scientist.”

For Judge and her team, these opportunities led to even more accolades. After the BTYSTE win came triumph at the European Union Content for Young Scientists (EUCYS) and international acclaim at Google Science Fair.

Plans for college

The trio’s winning research project, which investigated the use of diazotroph bacteria as a cereal crop germination and growth aid, had great ambition: to combat the global food crisis. Judge and Hickey hope to continue this research when they move on from Kinsale Community School to third-level education, and have already been in discussion with University College Cork (UCC), where Judge hopes to study genetics.

“It’s interesting, there’s a lot of potential for discovery and it’s growing exponentially at the moment,” she said of her new scientific interest.

“Fingers crossed! If all goes well, I’ll get my course and go to UCC, and there Émer and I can continue working on the science aspect of the project under Germinaid.”

That’s Germinaid Innovations, the scientific start-up from the savvy pair, which Hickey launched at Inspirefest in 2015. Judge was there in spirit – and through a pre-recorded video presentation – as she was attending MIT Launch, a young entrepreneurs programme at none other than the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ciara Judge and Émer Hickey at 2016 BT Young Scientist Exhibition

Ciara Judge and Émer Hickey promoting Project Zilkr at BTYSTE 2016. Photo by Luke Maxwell

International influence

Globetrotting is all par for the course for the Young Scientist champ. In the time since her win, she’s taken a tour of CERN in Geneva, travelled to Paris with fellow teen scientists, explored the Galapagos Islands courtesy of Google Science Fair, flown to Washington for a conference with National Geographic, and joined the first batch of Outbox executives in London.

In fact, Judge says she is “back and forth to London” as casually as a seasoned professional and, indeed, she will be onstage in London’s O2 arena next week to speak at TEDxTeen. In March, she’ll be shipping off to New York for the Three Dot Dash Global Teen Leaders summit where she hopes to identify mentors for Germinaid’s future moves into commercialisation.

This comes on the back of that BTYSTE research project and its findings, which has been identified by the We Are Family Foundation as having potential to make a change in the world. This is no forgettable model solar system or foaming volcano science project – before Google Science Fair, the girls’ research showed a 74pc increase in crop yield.

They’ve rubbed shoulders with EU leaders and discussed their research, as well as their insights as young scientists and how to encourage and support more like them – something they feel very passionate about.

Serial entrepreneur

Judge and Hickey have some of their own ideas on how to encourage more young people to experiment and engage with science. Through Germinaid Innovations, they are developing scientific kits and guides aimed at young people, enabling them to carry out experiments using household materials such as light bulbs or a spare floorboard.

“Basically, [we’re] trying to increase science outreach but not by pouring resources into people, just by giving people the information on how to be resourceful with what’s around them,” Judge explained.

And that’s just one of a trifecta of supportive projects this sixth-year student is backing.

Taking the role of CEO of PurchaseMate, her start-up from MIT Launch, she’s currently in a situation familiar to any entrepreneur in the app industry: waiting for Apple’s approval.

Judge is hoping to see PurchaseMate hit the App Store (for free) this month, at which point it will offer iOS users a simple barcode-scanning app to find out more about the brands behind the products they’re buying. A secondary feature whereby users can provide feedback to the stores they buy from is also in development.

Furthermore, while at the Web Summit in November 2015, the Young Scientist extraordinaire launched Project Zilkr, a platform offering teaching materials and mentorship for young entrepreneurs like Judge and her team.

Human after all

And so we’ve come full circle, as recruitment for Project Zilkr beta testers has brought Judge back to the RDS for the 2016 BTYSTE – an ideal hunting ground for the young and industrious.

In a perfectly-worded pitch, Judge tells me, “Right now, the students at the BT Young Scientist are actually being given the opportunity to participate in the beta that we’re running, which I think is really good because we have talented people here who are so passionate about innovation and that’s what we’re all about, too.”

The global team behind Project Zilkr are all second-level students and so the full platform won’t launch until the summer – after they’ve all finished their exams. And, on that subject, Judge is – like any other teenager in her position – “bricking it”.

It’s hard not to be bowled over by this 18-year-old’s achievements, but it’s comforting to know that she’s not superhuman and feels the same anxieties and stresses we’ve all been through – and, like any mere mortal, she needs to put the work in to get what she wants.

“I’ve been a bit distracted, so I’m knuckling down to study now,” she said. After January, she’s “semi-retiring” from public appearances until after the Leaving Cert.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s very difficult to manage doing all this extra stuff and studying at the same time so I don’t know how it’s going to work out but, hopefully, it should be okay.”

For what it’s worth, I think Ciara Judge will be more than okay.

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Intel, Open Eir (formerly Eircom Wholesale), Fidelity Investments, Accenture and CoderDojo.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Join us again from 30 June to 2 July 2016 for fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity. Get your Early Bird tickets now.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.